What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …) – more to genius than meets the eye (and ear …)

Christopher Hartney, “What Makes a Genius? From Voltaire to Edison (and Beyond …)” (WEA Sydney, 28 October 2014)

What makes a genius? Is genius inborn in certain individuals, irrespective of where they live and what they do, or does a certain environment have to exist to cultivate genius? Is genius, especially the lone genius, a real figure or is genius a myth that tells us more about the society that needs the genius myth and what it values? Why do some societies need the genius and others not? Why is it that at particular times in a society’s development, geniuses may appear at the same time in the same arena of intellectual, artistic or scientific endeavour, as in the case of Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace independently conceiving of natural selection as the driver of evolution? These questions were all tackled in just under 90 minutes with varying degrees of success by University of Sydney lecturer Christopher Hartney at WEA Sydney as part of its annual George Shipp lecture series.

Starting with Voltaire and working his way through individuals such as Mozart, Darwin, Alexander Graham Bell to Thomas Edison, Hartney delivered a fast-paced lecture that pulled in insights from aesthetics, philosophy, science and religion. He explored different concepts of the genius such as the genius as hero, the genius as prophet and other stereotypes. Hartney also pointed out the phenomenon of concurrence in which two or more creative people, acting independently of one another, have the same idea at the same time: this calls into question as to whether people considered geniuses are genuinely innovative or are merely conductors through which ideas and inventions may come into being. Hartney then explored the social context in which genius may arise and noted that geniuses often are never fully integrated into their societies: rather, they may be antagonistic towards some aspect or aspects of the culture in which they live and tend to set themselves apart from it in some way. They may be considered eccentric, bizarre or socially maladjusted; a common cultural theme in Western society is that of the mad scientist who works on his (rarely her) own pursuing projects that promise both great revelations and discoveries for humankind and great disaster as well.

The talk was very dense with information and there was little opportunity for audience input for most of Hartney’s time until the end. I must confess that early on I felt a bit dozy and missed quite a bit of Hartney’s speech. Hartney was very entertaining and fluent, very sure of his topic and I imagine quite a few people who attended the talk must have been spellbound.

In the space of 90 minutes, covering so much ground, Hartney did not go into much depth into each aspect of his lecture: it was clearly intended as an introduction into the nature of genius and its complex relationship to society. There was not the opportunity to investigate why some ideas and inventions often wait many years, even decades, before they become reality or are mass produced for the public. There was also no time to explore why genius often comes in pairs, as in famous song-writing duos – think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney during The Beatles’ heyday, Art Garfunkel and Paul Simon, or Elton John and Bernie Taupin – or in founders of corporations such as Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the founders of Apple Inc who conceived the idea of making personal computers as opposed to computers for businesses and organisations, or Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the founders of Sony. A third issue that Hartney was unable to investigate was why some creative individuals go unheralded while others take credit for their work, and why some people are brilliant at coming up with ideas but are unable to bring their ideas to full fruition: is the nature of the individuals themselves that their genius goes begging during their lifetimes or is it that society for some reason cannot accept their ideas and inventions at the time but is only able to accept them later if they come from somebody else?

Hartney concluded his talk by observing that genius is as much a product of nurture as of nature: genius may be genetic but it must be encouraged by a family upbringing and education that recognises and prizes individual ability and effort; genius needs interest and immersion in a particular field which may require and lead to isolation from others; genius needs to incubate, experience the moment of revelation and discovery, and then to develop and elaborate on the discovery and bring the concept into material reality and usefulness. This all must take place in a social context in which others are willing to accept the idea and give genius the time, space and resources to develop the idea.

On that open-ended conclusion, the audience cheered and I daresay many people were inspired enough to pursue the ideas in Hartney’s talk further.




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